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The Despoiler by Gouverneur Morris

 

Forrest paused when his explorations had brought him to the edge of the beechwood, all dappled with golden lights and umber shadows, and stood for a time brooding upon those intimate lawns and flowery gardens that seemed, as it were, but roofless extensions of the wide, open house.

It is probable that his brooding had in it an estimate of the cost of these things. It was thus that he had looked upon the blooded horses in the river-fields and the belted cattle in the meadows. It was thus that his grave eyes passed beyond the gardens and moved from corner to corner of the house, from sill to cornice, relating the porticos and interminable row of French windows to dollars and cents. He had, of course, been of one mind, and now he was of two; but that octagonal slug of California minting, by which he resolved his doubts, fell heads, and he stepped with an acquiescent reluctance from the dappled shadows into the full sunlight of the gardens and moved slowly, with a kind of awkward and cadaverous grandeur, toward the house. He paused by the sundial to break a yellow rose from the vine out of which its fluted supporting column emerged. So standing, and regarding the rose slowly twirled in his fingers, he made a dark contrast to the brightly-colored gardens. His black cape hung in unbroken lines from his gaunt shoulders to his knees, and his face had the modeling and the gentle gloom of Dante's.

The rose fell from his hand, and he moved onward through the garden and entered the house as nonchalantly as if it had been his own. He found himself in a cool dining-room, with a great chimney-piece and beaded white paneling. The table was laid for seven, and Forrest's intuitive good taste caused his eyes to rest with more than passing interest upon the stately loving-cup, full of roses, that served for a centre-piece. But from its rosy garlands caught up in the mouths of demon-heads he turned suddenly to the portrait over the chimney-piece. It was darker and more sedate than the pictures to which Forrest was accustomed, but in effect no darker or more sedate than himself. The gentleman of the portrait, a somewhat pouchy-cheeked, hook-nosed Revolutionary, in whose wooden and chalky hand was a rolled document, seemed to return Forrest's glance with a kind of bored courtesy.

"That is probably the Signer," thought Forrest, and he went closer. "A great buck in your time," he approved.

The butler entered the dining-room from the pantry, and, though a man accustomed to emergencies, was considerably nonplussed at the sight of the stranger. That the stranger was a bona fide stranger, James, who had served the Ballins for thirty years, knew; but what manner of stranger, and whether a rogue or a man upon legitimate business, James could not so much as guess.

"I beg your pardon, sir," he said, "were you looking for some one?"

"Yes," said Forrest, perfectly at his ease, "and no."

"Shall I tell Mr. Ballin that you are here, sir?"

"I shall find him for myself, thank you," said Forrest, and he moved toward an open door that seemed to lead into the hall.

"By the way," he said, "there will be an extra at luncheon."

Very stately in his long, black cape, and with his pensive Dantesque face, Forrest continued on his slow progress to the open door and went out of the dining-room. He crossed the hall with half an eye to its quiet tones and bowls of roses, and entered a room of bright chintz with a pattern of cornflowers, and full of sunlight. It was a very spacious room, and lively—a proper link between the gardens and the house; and here were many photographs in silver frames of smart men and women; and the Sunday papers with their colored supplements were strewn in disorder upon the floor. And it seemed to Forrest, so comfortable and intimate did it look, as if that room had been a part of his own life. Upon the blotter of a writing-table sprawled a check-book bound in yellow leather. And when Forrest saw that, he smiled. It came as a surprise that the teeth in that careworn face should be white and even. And in those rare and charming moments of his smiling he looked like a young man who has made many engagements with life which he proposes to fulfil, instead of like a man for whom the curious years reserve but one sensation more.

But Forrest did not remain any appreciable time in the cheerful living-room. A desire to explain and have it all over with was upon him; and he passed, rapidly now, from room to room, until in a far corner of the house he entered a writing-room furnished in severe simplicity with dark and dully-shining rosewood. This room was of an older fashion than any he had yet entered, and he guessed that it had been the Signer's workshop and had been preserved by his descendants without change. A pair of flintlock pistols, glinting silver, lay upon the desk; quill pens stood in a silver cup full of shot; a cramped map, drawn and colored by hand and yellow with age, hung above the mantel and purported, in bold printing with flourishes, to be The Proposed Route for the Erie Canal. Portraits of General Greene and Thomas Jefferson, by Stuart, also hung upon the walls. And there stood upon an octagonal table a bowl of roses.

There was a gentleman in the embrasure of a window, smoking a cigar and looking out. But at the sound of Forrest's step he turned an alert, close-cropped, gray head and stepped out of the embrasure.

"Mr. Ballin?" said Forrest.

"I am Mr. Ballin." His eyes perused the stranger with astonishing speed and deftness, without seeming to do so.

"It was the toss of a coin that decided me to come," said Forrest. "I have asked your butler to lay a place for me at luncheon."

So much assumption on the part of a stranger has a cheeky look in the printing. Yet Forrest's tone and manner far more resembled those of old friendship and intimacy than impertinence.

"Have I," said Ballin, smiling a little doubtfully, "ever had the pleasure of meeting you before? I have a poor memory for faces. But it seems to me that I should not have forgotten yours."

"You never saw me but the one time," said Forrest. "That was many years ago, and you would not remember. You were a—little wild that night. You sat against me at a game of faro. But even if you had been yourself—I have changed very much. I was at that time, as you were, little more than a boy."

"Good Lord!" said Ballin, "were you a part of that hectic flush that to myself I only refer to as 'Sacramento'?"

"You do not look as if it had turned you into a drinking man," said
Forrest.

"It didn't," said Ballin, and without seeing any reason for confiding in the stranger he proceeded to do so. "It was nip and tuck for a time," he said, "and then money came to me, and this old place and responsibilities, and I became, more from force of circumstances than from any inner impulse, a decentish citizen."

"The money made everything smooth, did it?" said Forrest. "I wonder."

"You wonder—what?" said Ballin.

"If it could—money alone. I have had it at times—not as you have had it—but in large, ready sums. Yet I think it made very little difference."

"What have you been doing since—Sacramento?" asked Ballin.

"Up to a month ago," said Forrest, "I kept on dealing—in different parts of the world—in San Francisco, in London—Cairo—Calcutta. And then the matter which brings me here was brought to my attention."

"Yes?" said Ballin, a little more coolly.

"When you were in Sacramento," Forrest went on quietly and evenly as if stating an acknowledged fact, "you did not expect to come into all this. Then your cousin, Ranger Ballin, and his son went down in the City of Pittsburgh; and all this"—he made a sudden, sweeping gesture with one of his long, well-kept hands—"came to you."

"Yes?" Ballin's voice still interrogated coolly.

Forrest broke into that naïve, boyish smile of his.

"My dear sir," said he, "I saw a play last winter in which the question is asked, 'Do you believe in Fairies?' I ask you, 'Do you believe in Gypsies?'"

"In what way?" Ballin asked, and he, too, smiled.

"Ranger Ballin," said Forrest, "had another son who was spirited away in childhood by the gypsies. That will explain this visit, which on the face of it is an impertinence. It will explain why I have entered this house without knocking, and have invited myself to luncheon. You see, sir, all this"—and again he made the sudden, sweeping gesture—"is mine."

It speaks for Forrest's effect that, although reason told Ballin to doubt this cataclysmic statement, instinct convinced him that it was true. Yet what its truth might mean to him did not so convincingly appear. That he might be ousted from all that he looked on as his own did not yet occur to him, even vaguely.

"Then we are cousins," he said simply, and held out his hand. But
Forrest did not take it at once.

"Do you understand what cousinship with me means to you?" he said.

"Why," said Ballin, "if you are my cousin"—he tried to imply the doubt that he by no means felt—"there is surely enough for us both."

"Enough to make up for the years when there has been nothing?" Forrest smiled.

"It is a matter for lawyers to discuss, then," said Ballin quietly. "Personally, I do not doubt that you believe yourself to be my cousin's son. But there is room, surely, in others for many doubts."

"Not in others," said Forrest, "who have been taught to know that two and two are four."

"Have you documentary proof of this astonishing statement?" said Ballin.

"Surely," said Forrest. And he drew from an inner pocket a bundle of documents bound with a tape. Ballin ran a perturbed but deft eye through them, while Forrest stood motionless, more like a shadow than a man. Then, presently, Ballin looked up with a stanch, honorable look.

"I pick no flaws here cousin," he said. "I—I congratulate you."

"Cousin," said Forrest, "it has been my business in life to see others take their medicine. But I have never seen so great a pill swallowed so calmly. Will you offer me your hand now?"

Ballin offered his hand grimly.

Then he tied the documents back into their tape and offered the bundle to Forrest.

"I am a careless man," said Forrest; "I might lose them. May I ask you to look after them for me?"

"Would you leave me alone with them?" asked Ballin.

"Of course," said Forrest.

Ballin opened an old-fashioned safe in the paneling and locked it upon the despoiling documents. Yet his heart, in spite of its dread and bitterness, was warmed by the trustfulness of the despoiler.

"And now what?" he said.

"And now," said Forrest, "remember for a little while only that I am, let us say, an old friend of your youth. Forget for the present, if you can, who else I am, and what my recrudescence must mean to you. It is not a happiness"—he faltered with his winning smile—"to give pain."

II

"Your father," said Forrest, "says that I may have his seat at the head of the table. You see, Miss Dorothy, in the world in which I have lived there were no families. And I have the strongest desire to experiment in some of those things which I have missed…. Ballin," he exclaimed, "how lovely your daughters are!"

The young Earl of Moray glanced up mischievously.

"Do you think, sir," he drawled, "that I have made the best selection under the circumstances? Sometimes I think I ought to have made up to Ellen instead of Dorothy."

"What's the matter with us?" said Alice, and she laid her hand upon
Evelyn's.

"Oh, you little rotters!" exclaimed the earl, whom they sometimes teased to the point of agony. "No man in his senses would look at you."

"Right-O!" said young Stephen Ballin, who made the eighth at table. "They're like germs," he explained to Forrest—"very troublesome to deal with."

"It's because we're twins," said Evelyn. "Everybody who isn't twins is down on them."

"It's because they are always beautiful and good," said Alice. "Why don't you stand up for us, father?"

It was noticed that Mr. Ballin was not looking well; that the chicken mousse upon his plate was untouched, and that he fooled with his bread, breaking it, crumbling it, and rolling it into pellets. He pulled himself together and smiled upon his beloved twins.

Forrest had turned to the Earl of Moray.

"Was it your ancestor," he said, "who 'was a bra' gallant, and who raid at the gluve'?"

"I am confident of it," said the young Englishman.

"By all accounts," said Forrest, "he would have been a good hand with a derringer. Have you that gift for games?"

"I'm a very good golfer." said the earl, "but I thought a derringer was a kind of dish that babies ate gruel out of." He blushed becomingly.

"As ever," said Alice, "insular and ignorant."

"You prickly baby!" exclaimed the earl. "What is a derringer, Mr.
Forrest?"

Forrest, having succeeded in drawing the attention of his immediate and prospective family from the ill looks of Mr. Ballin, proposed to keep his advantage.

"I will show you," he said. "Are my hands empty?"

"Quite so," said the earl.

"Keep your eyes on them," said Forrest, "so. Now, we will suppose that you have good reason to believe that I have stolen your horse. Call me a horse thief."

"Sir," said the earl, entering into the spirit of the game, "you are a horse thief!"

There appeared in Forrest's right hand, which had seemed empty, which had seemed not to move or to perform in any celeritous and magic manner, a very small, stubby, nickel pistol, with a caliber much too great for it, and down whose rifled muzzle the earl found himself gazing. The earl was startled. But he said, "I was mistaken, sir; you are not a horse thief." As mysteriously as it had come, the wicked little derringer disappeared. Forrest's hands remained innocently in plain view of all.

"Oh," said Alice, "if you had only pulled the trigger!"

Evelyn giggled.

"Frankly, Mr. Forrest," said the earl, "aren't the twins loathsome? But tell me, can you shoot that thing as magically as you play tricks with it?"

"It's not a target gun," said Forrest. "It's for instantaneous work at close range. One could probably hit a tossed coin with it, but one must have more weight and inches to the barrel and less explosion for fine practice."

"What would you call fine practice?" asked Stephen.

"Oh," said Forrest, "a given leg of a fly at twenty paces, or to snip a wart from a man's hand at twenty-five."

Mr. Ballin rose.

"I'm not feeling well," he said simply; "when the young people have finished with you, Forrest, you will find me in the Signer's room." He left the table and the room, very pale and shaky, for by this time the full meaning of Forrest's incontestable claim had clarified in his brain. He saw himself as if struck down by sudden poverty—of too long leisure and too advanced Forrest finished as abruptly as he had begun and rose from the piano. But for a few charged moments even the twins were silent.

"He used to sing that song," said Forrest, "so that the cold chills went galloping the length of a man's spine. He was as like you to look at," he turned to the earl, "as one star is like another. I cannot tell you how it has moved me to meet you. We were in a place called Grub Gulch, placer-mining—half a dozen of us. I came down with the scarlet fever. The others bolted, all but Charlie Stuart. He stayed. But by the time I was up, thanks to him, he was down—thanks to me. He died of it." Forrest finished very gravely.

"Good Lord!" said the earl.

"He might ha' been a king," said Forrest. And he swallowed the lump that rose in his throat, and turned away so that his face could not be seen by them.

But, presently, he flashed about with his winning smile.

"What, would all you rich young people do if you hadn't a sou in the world?"

"Good Lord!" said Stephen, "everything I know how to do decently costs money."

"I feel sure," said Alice, her arm about Evelyn's waist, "that our beauty and goodness would see us through."

"I," said Ellen, "would quietly curl up and die."

"I," said Dorothy, "would sell my earl to the highest bidder."

"I shouldn't bring tuppence," said the earl.

"But you," said Forrest to the earl, "what would you do if you were stone-broke?"

"I would marry Dorothy to-morrow," said the earl, "instead of waiting until September. Fortunately, I have a certain amount of assets that the law won't allow me to get rid of."

"I wish you could," said Forrest.

"Why?" The earl wrinkled his eyebrows.

"I would like to see what you would do." He laid his hand lightly upon the young Englishman's shoulder. "You don't mind? I am an old man," he said, "but I cannot tell you—what meeting you has meant to me. I want you to come with me now, for a few minutes, to Mr. Ballin. Will you?"

III

"Mr. Ballin," said Forrest, his hand still on the earl's shoulder, "I want you to tell this young man what only you and I know."

Ballin looked up from his chair with the look of a sick man.

"It's this, Charlie," he said in a voice that came with difficulty. "It's a mistake to suppose that I am a rich man. Everything in this world that I honestly thought belonged to me belongs to Mr. Forrest."

The earl read truth in the ashen, careworn face of his love's father.

"But surely," he said anxiously, "Dorothy is still yours—to give."

Forrest's dark and brooding countenance became as if suddenly brightly lighted.

"My boy—my boy!" he cried, and he folded the wriggling and embarrassed
Stuart in his long, gaunt arms.

I think an angel bringing glad tidings might have looked as Forrest did when, releasing the Earl of Moray, he turned upon the impulse and began to pour out words to Ballin.

"When I found out who I was," he said, "and realized for how long—oh, my Lord! how long—others had been enjoying what was mine, and that I had rubbed myself bare and bleeding against all the rough places of life, will you understand what a rage and bitterness against you all possessed me? And I came—oh, on wings—to trample, and to dispossess, and to sneer, and to send you packing…. But first the peace of the woods and the meadows, and the beech wood and the gardens, and the quiet hills and the little brooks staggered me. And then you—the way you took it, cousin!—all pale and wretched as you were; you were so calm, and you admitted the claim at once—and bore up…. Then I began to repent of the bitterness in which I had come…. And I left the papers in your keeping…. I thought—for I have known mostly evil—that, perhaps, you would destroy them…. It never entered your head…. Your are clean white—and so are your girls and your boy…. I did not expect to find white people in possession. Why should I?… But I said, 'Surely the Englishman isn't white—he is after the money.' But right away I began to have that feeling, too, smoothed out of me…. And now, when he finds that instead of Dorothy being an heiress she is a pauper, he says, 'But surely, Dorothy is still yours to give!'

"I was a fool to come. Yet I am glad."

Neither Ballin nor the earl spoke.

"Could I have this room to myself for a little while?" asked Forrest.

"Of course," said Ballin; "it is yours."

Forrest bowed; the corners of his mouth turned a little upward.

"Will you come back in an hour—you, alone, cousin?"

Ballin nodded quietly.

"Come along, Charlie," he said, and together they left the room. But
when Ballin returned alone, an hour later, the room was empty. Upon the
Signer's writing-desk was a package addressed collectively to "The
Ballins," and in one corner was written, "Blood will tell."

The package, on being opened, proved to contain nothing more substantial than ashes. And by the donor thereof there was never given any further sign.